Alt-country guitar hero Buddy Miller said a funny thing when I asked him about Universal United House of Prayer. Solo or with his wife Julie, Miller is known for songs of conjugal love steeped in the kind of bittersweet obsessiveness that modern Nashville has stuck in the same museum as honky-tonk. But about his new album he’s reflected, “I like the way those Marvin Gaye and Staples Singers records were sort of gospel records and sort of about the state of the world.” The contrast is pretty clear—human emotion versus big ideas. Yet explaining the same album to me, he mused, “It’s a more personal thing.”
One motivation was personal by any reckoning: the death a year ago of his brother-in-law, Jeff Griffin, who was—how can this be comprehended?—struck by lightning in the very spot where he’d had a crippling motorcycle accident as a teenager. But that’s not the only reason Miller finally felt compelled to make music out of the Christianity Julie induced her Jewish boyfriend to embrace in the early ’80s. The other was “the way Jesus has been hijacked by the Bush administration.” I wondered whether he identified with any of four descriptives Christians favor: devout, evangelical, born again, saved. “I wouldn’t have a problem with them,” he responded, “except in the way they’re taken by the rest of the world.”
Beyond African Americans, who fall outside the parameters of this discussion, many believing Christians produce quality pop of discernible religious dimension. U2 are Christians (or were—they hide it under a bushel these days); so too are not just P.O.D. and Chevelle but, Lord have mercy, Creed, and also, let us be thankful, two likable enough recent big-rock breakthroughs, Evanescence and Switchfoot. In Nashville, Christianity is a given, though less so than many country fans wish or believe (cf. Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rove in Washington). Note, however, that nonpareil vocalist Randy Travis now emphasizes sacred music. In fact, although alt-country is apostate by definition, it’s surprising it hasn’t generated more progressive Christians. But beyond sainted kook Victoria Williams, righteous egomaniac Michelle Shocked, and maybe new-folk madonna Mindy Smith, the Millers seem to be it.
Although Julie cut straight Christian albums for Myrrh in the ’90s, Buddy doesn’t truck with the conventions of “CCM,” as contemporary Christian music is fondly called. Believe him when he claims he has no idea who Universal United House of Prayer is for. His own fans, sure, and although the longtime Emmylou Harris sideman earns his keep as a guitarist-producer-songwriter, there are enough of those—in his world, he’s an icon. But this album won’t get him invited to the Cornerstone Festival, one of several gatherings of the CCM faithful that ordinary rock fans have never heard of. In this he is unlike the guy who wrote the opener—the late Mark Heard, hit with the first of two 1992 heart attacks onstage at Cornerstone. Miller was close to Heard. On a 1994 tribute album, he and Julie did their friend’s anti-capitalist “Orphans of God.”
“I don’t want to say he was rejected by that whole CCM scene, but he wasn’t saying the things they wanted to hear,” Miller told me. Case in point: that opener, the most powerful track on a record overshadowed by a funereal, nine-minute remake of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side.” Heard’s “Worry Too Much” is set up with a guitar riff, a splash of tambourine, a martial drumbeat, and the mournful wail of Regina or Ann McCrary, daughters of Fairfield Four founder Sam McCrary, present throughout to remind us that not all Christian music is white. In a drawl so forthright it could cut a block of ice, Miller begins: “It’s the demolition derby/It’s the sport of the hunt/Proud tribe in full war dance”—now here’s the killer—”It’s the slow smile that the bully gives the runt.” Sound like anyone you see smirking on television? Inspired by Iraq I, it applies equally to Iraq II, and anyone who’s studied W.’s tax policies will be chilled by how it ends: “It’s the children of my children/It’s the lambs born in innocence/It’s wondering if the good I know/Will last to be seen by the eyes of the little ones.”
Note that this song is no less doctrinal than track two, the Louvin Brothers’ comparatively cheerful “There’s a Higher Power,” which assures believers they “need not fear the works of men.” The Millers aren’t always so discreet. Their love songs get pretty profane, as on the sexy “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast,” which leads their canny HighTone best-of Love Snuck Up: “You’re so angelic, I’m psychedelic/With emotion and I can’t come down.” And between “Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?” and “If God’s on our side, he’ll stop the next war,” Miller’s big number risks blasphemy. That’s the idea—to voice a wide range of Christian responses to crises personal and/or political. Even the Victoria Williams-co-written “This Old World,” a loose-limbed shuffle whose refrain insists “You can’t worship money and God,” preaches reconciliation rather than struggle: “Pray, pray/Time to love every man, woman, and child/Pray, pray/Just forgive and let live for a little while.”
But surrounding “This Old World” are six songs about the lightning factor—songs of dread rectified by faith. Some of these could console anyone, like the redemptive “Returning,” or “Wide River to Cross” with its Emmylou-tempered “I’m only halfway home”; others are harsher, warning sinners “Don’t Wait,” or “Fall on the Rock” (“Before the rock falls on you”). Either way, however, their limits are manifest. It’s bigotry to believe all Christians are the same, myopia to deny that faith in something bigger underlies all humane politics. But there’s a difference between Christians and secular humanists—secular humanists live convinced that halfway home is halfway to oblivion. Miller is grounded enough to know that Christians are supposed to earn God’s eternity by doing good here, and worldly enough to understand that voting for justice should be what voting your values means. But the Louvin Brothers, for instance, weren’t. Me, I fear the works of some men plenty. The most dangerous is a born-again Christian, believe it. And I’ll never forgive him.